Calling from his New Jersey home, where Rivera and his mother were hoping Hurricane Earl would spare them and his property in Massachusetts, the 67-year-old discussed his upcoming anniversary special, which will make up half of each of this weekend’s 10 p.m programs. With one eye on the storm, Rivera struck a typically Geraldo tone, even if a smirk lingered behind his ‘stache: ”I may do the show from my [Massachusetts] lawn.” Let’s hope for the best. Or worst. Either way, Rivera will make the most of it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Does it feel like 40 years?
GERALDO RIVERA: It’s really been an amazing ride: 10,000 stories at least and I’ve traveled to the four corners of the globe, in every incarnation you can think of. Just check out how my hairdo and my mustache have changed over the years. It’s a pop cultural history of America.
It must’ve been surreal to resurrect all the highs and lows of your career?
It’s been wild. I collect everything but I’m totally disorganized, so it’s been amazing just collating things for this program. We have almost every minute of footage from every significant story I’ve ever done. We even found the chair that broke my nose in storage, along with a lot of other mementos. Most importantly all the footage of the brawls, the wars, the hurricanes – including the one where I got knocked down.
You started out as one of the original members of WABC’s Eyewitness News.
Their concept, which they’ve been pretty true to for half a century, was that the news team should look like the audience that it serves, so in a crazy town like New York, you have one of each basically. A big part of why I got hired was because they wanted a Hispanic. We did one promo where I brought the Eyewitness News team – anchors Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, weatherman Tex Antoine, Howard Cosell and Jim Bouton and Frank Gifford – to a Puerto Rican wedding. And they all dance salsa. It’s from early 1971 and it’s so funny.
You reported some important investigative stories, including one about ill-treatment of the developmental disabled at institutions like Willowbrook. But you also always seemed to have a foot in the limelight. How did that initially develop?
Jerry Weintraub was my first agent. He brought Frank Sinatra and Henry Kissinger to my first book party, which was about Willowbrook. It was kind of a wild experience for a young reporter. Later, I befriended all of the Beatles and the Stones, and chronicled all that stuff in the very early ’70s. John Lennon would do the famous concert for One-to-One that became his Live in New York City album. I was friends with him until the day he died. We were sort of neighbors on the West Side. That friendship, in many ways, defined my early relationship with people in public life like that.
As savvy and self-confident as you are, hanging with the Beatles must’ve been thrilling.
Especially when you’re my age. Not only did they play a seminal role in my own personal style – I changed my haircut because of the Beatles in ‘64 – they kind of changed my life. Later on, John Eastman, Linda’s brother, was my lawyer, so I had a real connection with Paul. And since George succumbed to cancer and John was killed – Ringo was always kind of a gadfly who I never was too close to – I became closer to Paul. And to see how history gets spun, ex post facto, has been fascinating. But clearly, you see how much they affected and defined America’s pop-cultural style for that decade and probably forever.
You’ve written several books, but one that made the biggest waves for you personally was 1991’s Exposing Myself, in which you detailed a very active social life with some very famous ladies. Did that book make your professional life more difficult?
It did in every regard. It was the worst mistake I ever made. It’s much worse than Al Capone’s vault. It’s something that put me in the corner of exploitation, Trash-TV, that whole rap I’ve been trying to get away from my whole life. I made myself seem very self-involved and selfish. There’s nothing that’s untrue [in the book] but some things are better left unsaid. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.
You also famously flattered Barbara Walters, albeit in a way she wasn’t accustomed to, when you rather crudely complemented her breasts in a 1998 Playboy interview. Was there fallout from that?
Everyone always treated her like the Iron Maiden. I was the only one who said, “Wait a minute, she might the first million-dollar reporter, but she’s a babe.” Some important people were mad, “How can you say that about Barbara Walters!” and it continued to haunt me 20 years after the fact, but Barbara loved it and that’s what counts. At least she said she did. We have a whole segment about it in the retrospective: “The One Who Got Away.” You see my pathetic flirtation with her over the years all put together – she basically ended up pinching my cheek and patting me on the head and saying, “Go away.” But it was really cool, and she was very gracious.
Was it difficult to put Exposing Myself and the talk-show behind you and get back into “serious” news?
It was just the other way around. I did a show that I’ll never forget about abusive dads around the time that Who’s-Your-Baby’s-Daddy DNA testing was invented. This abusive dad brought his wife and child, and it turned out he wasn’t the actual father of the child, so not only did we attack him for being an abusive dad, we also revealed to him that the child was not his own. He stood up, punched the set and said, “Thanks Geraldo!” and stormed off. I looked at my stage manager and I said, “We have got to get out of this business. I can’t stand this anymore. It’s awful.” That was much more of a psychic burden than going back in to the quote-unquote news business with Rivera Live in 1994. It was much easier to do a show that was my best angels rather than my commercial or worst angels. I understood the reluctance of people like Tom Brokaw to welcome me back, but in many ways the welcome became mandated by the fact that the audience stayed with me. That’s always been my secret weapon.
O.J. Simpson indirectly had something to do that when his trial became such a tabloid sensation. Did you know him?
No, but I held him in high regard. I mean, anyone who rushes for 2,000 yards in a winter in Buffalo deserves all the kudos you can give him, but it just seemed to me that Simpson was clearly guilty of double-homicide, and he was trying to charm his way out of it. [Geraldo Live] really dominated in the ratings during that whole saga, and we quickly became the go-to station. We did a 6.0 rating on the civil-court verdict date, and that segued into the Clinton impeachment, when our show became Bill Clinton’s principle defender in primetime.
How did you nab the interview that everybody wanted, your 2005 sitdown with Michael Jackson, who had been indicted for child molestation?
I thought he was being framed, and I bet my mustache that he would be acquitted. Once you say something like that, you take a big gulp. I had spoken to Michael a couple of times on the telephone prior to that. I started having meetings with him, trying to convince him to do the interview. He was such a mercurial oddball anyway, but getting welcomed into his inner world had its own bizarre aspects. Meeting him was like meeting Elvis and Sinatra and the Beatles and the Stones. It was a fascinating experience, and I stuck by my guns that he was being framed, and ultimately the jury agreed with me.
What was Jackson like at that time?
He was living the life of a social exile, going hotel to hotel. He didn’t want to go back to Neverland because of the raid that had spoiled his earthly paradise. He would go from confident, totally normal-seeming dad – “You want Frosted Flakes or Captain Crunch?” – to me and him alone in a room where he’s got the shades drawn and he’s in the fetal position on the couch. He was so frail and he’d be trembling. It was interesting. And pathetic. I wish I could’ve helped him more, but…
Even the best journalists hear their fair share of, “No, thanks,” but who’s proven the most elusive to you over the years?
The most elusive right now is Barack Obama. He’s been ducking me. I’m sure he’s going to give the interview to the Dog-Food Channel before he gets around to me. The one who didn’t get away was Barbra Streisand. My Jewish-American wife from Shaker Heights thinks that’s my seminal achievement, but that was a long negotiation. It took years to land her, which we finally did in the context of her movie, Yentl. The thing was, I never really had the resources to compete with The Today Show and Oprah or some of the big [news shows], so you got to make do with charm. But charm only goes so far.
I saw you have a collection of art in your garage, including a painting of Charles Manson. How does it feel to see that face everyday?
Well, that’s one of a whole media series that was painted to decorate the halls of my talk show office. There’s one of me with my nose broken. They’re a reminder of what it is I do for a living, and that collection totally captures that side of what I do. It’s the most notorious stories. It’s my own Paley Media Museum in a way.
Have you come to terms with that aspect of your persona, and the jokes that have followed?
I’m very easily parodied, with my chin and my mustache and some of the stories I do. I think I’m the only one made fun of for four successive decades of Saturday Night Live. I made more Dubious Distinction lists in Esquire Magazine than anybody, I think. I had an unbroken string there that lasted something like seven years. I gave them 11 years of ammo with the talk show, so I think I’ll always be the symbol of that kind of pop-cultural excess.
I have to ask, When was the last time you didn’t have the mustache?
1968. My mustache is older than my wife.
Any plans to take it off?
It’ll be there until the day I die.
Geraldo at Large’s two-part celebration of Rivera’s 40 years on television will air on Fox News this Saturday and Sunday night, at 10 p.m.